On Identity as Performance

I want to throw a party for queer, trans, gender nonconforming people of color where everyone comes costumed as their autobiographical mythical character. Like on some real life Zami meets Comic-Con type stuff. Everyone brings something to simultaneously obscure and reveal their true identities: a homemade mask, or (if your life isn’t set up such that you have time to casually be doing arts and crafts during the work week) a mask made in a special Arts & Crafts room before you enter the party. There’d be tables and walls covered with brightly colored wigs and feather boas and fabrics and body paint and bedazzled bralets so people could adorn and mask themselves before you walk in.

Let me give you some context. I’ve spent the greater portion of my life feeling like, 95% of the time, at any given time, I have to suppress  at least one part of myself. As a queer black woman born and raised in the South, ya girl learned to code switch faster than a mothafucka could say so articulate. The only time I felt like Ididn’t have to, at least in some capacity, pretend to be someone else was when I was hanging out with my sisterfriends-- girls (now women) who stayed by my side over the years and continued to love me as I tried on different versions of myself.


A few years ago, I read this this essay that said Black women wear masks with everyone except for their sisters. This resonated with me on a deep level, as someone who, for a significant portion of my life, was convinced I’d never get married in favor of cultivating long-term platonic partnerships between me and my best friends.  

In the company of sisterfriends was the only time I felt like I could be fully myself; the only time that I didn't feel like I had to perform. I think there’s something inherently valuable about those rare moments in which we are given permission to be fully self-expressed. When I say, ‘are given permission,’ perhaps I mean, more specifically: ‘are in rare environments in which we don’t have to fear of the varied and violent repercussions of our full self-expression.’

I’m sure most of us can count on one hand the number of people around whom we feel like we can be our true, full selves. People who occupy bodies that are marginalized, demonized, and criminalized are so often forced to engage in day-to-day performances to gain respect, resources or sometimes, at worst: as an act of survival. 

I started thinking about all this two years ago, when I gifted myself a bright teal wig for my 26th birthday. I bought the wig at a wig shop/beauty salon called Fifi Mahony’s in New Orleans, per the recommendation of a drag queen I had met at a party. Of course.

 

I wore the wig out around New Orleans the first day I bought it, and it was like a veil had been lifted. I felt strange and magical. Magnetic. Sexy. I couldn’t walk into a room without everyone noticing I had entered. I felt powerful. Alive. Putting the wig on was like stepping into character. I indulged this fantasy of immediate transformation, and eventually found myself becoming more and more like the confident, carefree woman I was pretending to be.

For the next few months, I wore the wig on every single first date I went on. I don’t know what came first -- my altered self-perception or other people’s altered perception of me -- but wearing the wig literally made me feel like I someone else. After a while, I realized that character I was so easily able to slip into and out of wasn’t someone I was pretending to be; that character was just… myself.

Growing up consuming media in which Black women were consistently erased (or, if present, were relegated to playing sexless Mammies or over-sexualized Jezebels), it was easy to internalize the violent lie that what a Black woman can and should do with her body is determined by everyone other than the Black woman herself. 

For many years of my young adult life,  I felt disconnected from my body, and subsequently, when I got older: from my sexuality as well. It wasn’t until I started coming into my queerness (at the age of 23) that I really started to see and understand myself as a sexual being. Shortly thereafter, I started to see how deeply terrified the world was of a woman who claimed her sexuality -- how much systems of power and oppression are rooted in women feeling in control of her body.

I felt shamed not only by images and narratives in the media, but by friends and loved ones about my sex and dating life-- made to feel like my sexual thoughts, desires, and impulses were unnatural. Wrong.

Wearing this teal wig allowed me to, for a moment, give myself permission to be the person I suppressed in front of anyone who had ever dared to shame me for being me.  

I'm not saying that wearing wigs out in public is the answer to all of our identity problems. Really, I'm not just talking about wigs and masks here, but anything that allows us to feel like we can express ourselves as we choose. Anything that remind us of the broad spectrum of our humanity. What would it be like to reclaim the performance of our own complex identities?  To step all the way into it, and to do so on our own terms? I forget sometimes, how necessary this is. How crucial it is to give ourselves permission to bring all of us into the room.